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In its "usual" usage in politics, it refers to the (forced) union of Germany and Austria in 1938.

And a literal translation of the word might be "closing."

Can the term be used to refer to a "merger of equals," e.g. of Poland and Lithuania around 1550? Or does it have the connotations of an "unequal" match, with one party swallowing up the other?

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

In history and politics, it's not an Anschluss, it is the "Anschluss".

Literally, the word means connection or the making of a connection. It was used by the Nazis as a euphemism to describe the merger of Austria into Germany (not as a merger of equals, but as a "homecoming" of sorts).

Usage of this word in the context of history and politics is exclusive for this one incident, which is why I put a definite article instead of an indefinite one. It is also advisable to put the term in quotation marks, as I did, to show that you are using Nazi terminology and distance yourself from it.

In all other contexts, the word has no negative connotation and is used often in its literal sense.

Of course, the word can be used to suggest a parallel to the "Anschluss" of Austria in 1938 even in other contexts, but that would be poor taste and the jibe might also go unnoticed. For instance, calling the wedding of two people an "Anschluss" would suggest that one party would give up sovereignty and submit to the whims of the other - not a nice thing to say, and not a nice way to say it.

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"In all other contexts, the word has no negative connotation and is used often in its literal sense." - as someone who doesn't speak German, I was once surprised to see the word in an instruction manual. Another case of a word being mundane in German but having a specific meaning to English-speakers is Zyklon, which Siemens used for an oven (a gas oven, no less)! –  Andrew Grimm Jan 2 '12 at 22:35
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@Andrew, I think the Zyklon naming by Siemens was a blooper. No one in their right mind would do that. Anschluss, however, is a perfectly normal word meaning attachment, connection, link. Nobody would take note if you were to connect your oven to a Gas-Anschluss (though there are more correct and more beautiful ways to say this, the verb anschließen would probably feature in all of them). –  fzwo Jan 2 '12 at 22:50
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I strongly agree with this answer: The German reunification for example would never be called an "Anschluss", even if the term would fit perfectly the facts (eastern Germany joined the west instead of a real merge of the two "Germanys"). +1 also for the widespread usage of "Anschluss" in other contexts: "im Anschluss an" (after), "den Anschluss verpassen" (to stay behind), "Anschluss suchen" (trying to make friends) are examples of non-literal use. –  0x6d64 Jan 3 '12 at 11:07
    
I wouldn't recommend using quotation marks around "Anschluß". Either you find the word appropriate, then you use it, or you don't, then use something else. Negative connotations are always in your mind, not in the word. –  user unknown Jan 3 '12 at 11:54
    
@userunknown: I would not use quotation marks in other contexts, but it is advisable to use them when talking about the forced unification of 1938, just as it is when using words such as "Reichskristallnacht" etc. - to distance yourself from the euphemism. –  fzwo Jan 3 '12 at 12:44
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Yes, it has the connotation of a bigger country or more powerful state swallowing up the smaller one, though it suggests the voluntary merge of two states. Anschluss as the noun of the verb anschließen can have many meanings of which sich etw. anschließen as in to join sth. is the most suitable here.

If I wanted to express a "merging of equals" I'd rather use the noun Vereinigung which means [re]union or alternatively the German noun Union as in the corresponding Wikipedia article.

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IMHO the word Anschluss is strongly connected to the occupation and annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. Using this word in another context is, let's put it this way, dangerous. –  splattne Jan 2 '12 at 18:29
    
@splattne: I disagree with the second part: Using the word in other contexts is absolutely OK, but using it in the same context for other unifications of countries (such as east and west Germany) is "dangerous", as you say, that is, it is suggesting parallels to what happened in 1938. –  fzwo Jan 2 '12 at 19:33
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Actually, the context of my question was "social." In my (German-American) circles, someone used the term to describe a relationship in which the two parties were 24 years apart in age. One interpretation would be a prediction that they would make a "connection" (marriage). The other interpretation would be the "grossly unequal" part. And I don't dare ask any of the three parties what this meant. –  Tom Au Jan 2 '12 at 22:22
    
@Tom: If somebody called a potential marriage an "Anschluss", that would probably be a jibe playing with the political meaning (and as such, bad taste, IMHO). I can't imagine a native german speaker calling a marriage or other civil union an Anschluss. One could call it a Zusammenschluss. (Somebody unaware of the connotation might clumsily refer to an unequal merger of companies or clubs as an Anschluss of the smaller one to the larger one) –  fzwo Jan 2 '12 at 22:55
    
@Tom I edited my answer to hopefully clarify. –  fzwo Jan 2 '12 at 23:00
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